Digital divide ‘catastrophic’ for many students – World Bank

The digital divide off campus has been “catastrophic” for large groups of students around the world, but the return to campuses has also been “hit and miss” in different contexts, even in rich countries, according to Roberta Malee Bassett, the global tertiary lead and senior education specialist for the World Bank.

Addressing the European webinar for the third World Access to Higher Education Day or WAHED on 17 November, she said there were issues of equity arising from the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on higher education and a big challenge is trying to understand who is doing well now, and what has been the impact of the return to campus, where it has occurred.

“Students lives were disrupted. When they attend higher education, they [may] move their family and their whole life there. But when campuses closed, especially for students who rely for housing on what the institution is providing, there have been a lot of repercussions for equity,” Bassett said.

Precarious financial situation

Graeme Atherton, director of the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON) in the United Kingdom, added: “The immediate impact of COVID-19 on income and financial circumstances of students shows how many students are living in a fairly precarious financial situation, where it only takes a small change for many of them to suffer extreme financial hardship.”

He said the attendees at the webinars, one held for each region of the world on the same day, ranged from policy-makers to academics, foundation representatives and students.

The idea behind the webinars was to see “what could be achieved by working together. How can we come through this terrible episode in global history? How can we emerge with some form of positive outcomes as we have done after major global conflicts before?”

Atherton said the question being asked was: “How do we as a community, because we believe strongly that equity should be fundamental to higher education, make sure it is part of the agenda going forward?”

He said there is a huge role to build focus on and address issues of equity and there was not nearly enough research and data yet. He was particularly keen to establish what commitment to equity exists in national policy frameworks.

Atherton said one of the goals of WAHED is to press individual universities to have “concrete targets regarding which students they admit”.

He said he would make equity part of a broader pandemic conversation outside of education and within that. “An important part of the conversation is the way COVID-19 has led groups to want dialogue where possibly they have not had that before.”

Speakers in the opening session included representatives of the Austrian government, the European Students’ Union, the World Bank, the Association of Commonwealth Universities, NEON and one from Dublin City University.

The webinars were among more than 30 events taking place in 25 countries on World Access to Higher Education Day on 17 November. WAHED is the global day of action focusing on increasing access and participation in higher education for those from low income and other marginalised groups and is convened by NEON.

This year, the third WAHED, there was a strong focus on the impact of COVID-19 on inequity.

Lack of resilience strategies

“The COVID-19 crisis has shown that systems and institutions lack resilience strategies and planning and are unequally digitally prepared,” Bassett said.

She said that, even before the crisis, data was showing that access and equity remain big challenges in higher education, especially in relation to wealth distribution globally, with Sub-Saharan Africa falling further behind other regions.

In 2018 access to higher education in Sub-Saharan Africa averaged at 9% compared to 70% in Europe and Central Asia, she said.

The hit and miss approach to coming back to campuses has left disadvantaged students more vulnerable to dropping out.

“Persistence rates are likely to diminish,” Barrett said, “and will be disproportionate for at-risk and low-advantage students. The digital divide has been one of economic distribution as much as anything else.

“There are places where internet penetration is as little as 30%, and students who went home to regions where penetration was insufficient had to stop studying. This has been catastrophic for large groups of students around the world.”

Because of technology bottlenecks there was actually a need for old technology, such as being able to print out on paper, in many places. In addition, staff had not been trained to deliver remote learning, she said.

Joanna Newman, secretary general of the Association of Commonwealth Universities, said COVID-19 had shown up “stark disparities in accessibility and infrastructure” globally.

“What COVID exposed more than ever is the huge divide in quality that exists in access to higher education across the world, not least the digital divide.”

She said the Association of Commonwealth Universities’ own survey showed not only that lots of universities had no access to data infrastructure, but that many students couldn’t even use hand-held devices because of a lack of data.

“It is even divided inside institutions,” she said. “In the more senior levels there is a lot of good access, but down to junior staff [levels], access to relevant equipment was very poor.”

She said the survey did show that a lot could be done by governments working with independent partners and universities to provide better access next time there is a need to go digital.

Examples of innovation

She said there had been good examples of innovation. For instance, the vice-chancellor of the University of the South Pacific, which is located in a dozen island states in Oceania, worked with shopping centres to get access to data when campuses on the islands were closed. And in Ghana a private provider gave all students access to data.

Newman argued that there was a divide in international education to address too, with lots of reasons why students can’t study abroad, including not wanting to leave their family, not having enough income, not wanting to leave the main body of students and not having the confidence.

Universities have found that virtual mobility gives students the confidence to go overseas for real. However, there remains the same problem of whether they have the internet connection to do it or not.

Martina Darmanin, the human rights and solidarity co-ordinator of the European Students’ Union (ESU), said that ESU is pushing for an emergency fund to help students suffering from losing their part-time jobs and a greater emphasis on grants for students from under-represented groups, or who were disadvantaged or vulnerable.

“The students who are losing their jobs are coming from [those disadvantaged groups], making it more of a privilege than a right for students to access higher education,” she said.

She advocated a review and adjustment of tuition fee policies.

“We should be prolonging tuition fee payments, introducing instalment plans, decreasing the amount of fees, or best of all abandoning fees for good, as higher education is a public good and therefore should be publicly sustained,” she said.